Most fairy tales don’t include palm trees, but a visit to the tropical Hawaiian islands of Kauai and Hawaii will convince you they should.
You’ll learn daring stories of kings and adventurers, taste coffee straight from the farm and marvel at spectacular landscapes that are unlike any others. To truly explore Hawaii’s varied, stunning attractions, start your visit in Kona, a storied region on Hawaii Island, then travel to Kauai, whose natural beauty is spellbinding.
Starting in Kona
After flying into Kona, spend a few days exploring the Kona Coast on the western side of the island. It’s easy to forget that lava from active volcanoes flows nearby when you drive through the town of Kailua-Kona and into the lush hillside communities in South Kona.
Spend at least a day in Kailua-Kona. The former home of Hawaii’s ruler, King Kamehameha, has morphed from a quiet fishing village into a charming hub with tropical-themed shops and diverse restaurants. Next, tour the island’s coffee farms and explore Kealakekua Bay, the site of the first European landing in Hawaii. You’ll need a car to get around; the island of Hawaii is often called “the Big Island” to avoid confusion with the state of Hawaii and because it’s larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined.
Kayaking with tropical fish in Kealakekua Bay's clear waters
Where to Stay on the Island of Hawaii
You have many options up and down the coast. There are luxury resorts like the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai and mid-range options, which include Hilton Waikoloa Village and Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. A wide variety of condos, where you can cook your own food, also are available.
Traveling to Kauai
While Kona provides a good historical background for Hawaii, Kauai embodies pure natural beauty. With waterfall-laced green mountains, a nearly 1,100-meter-deep canyon and an undeveloped coastline, the Garden Isle is a must for anyone who loves nature and the outdoors. The oldest and westernmost of the main Hawaiian Islands is so exotic that it’s been used to film movies like "Jurassic Park" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
The easiest and most common way to get from Kona to Kauai is to fly, although you can also take a cruise. Once you’re there, you’ll need at least three days to see Kauai’s top sights. Spend five to seven days to see all four sides of the island, each of which has distinctive beaches and trails.
The infamous Kalalau Trail on the Hawaiian island of Kauai
Exploring Kauai by Air
One of the first things you should do in Kauai is take a helicopter tour. An aerial view offers a great way to get your bearings and decide what places you want to see up close. The ride is beautiful – you’ll hover over the green and red chasms of Waimea Canyon, zoom over the cliffs of Na Pali Coast and see plenty of waterfalls, including one made famous by "Jurassic Park."
Most tours depart from Lihue, near the island’s main airport. For a real thrill, and the opportunity for better photos, take a doors-off tour.
Taking in the vistas at Waimea Canyon
Exploring Kauai by Water
One popular way to explore Kauai is by boat. Catamaran cruises and small raft tours depart daily from Port Allen on the island’s west side. Sail up along Na Pali Coast and snorkel or watch for humpback whales (from December to May). Many companies offer tours; Holo Holo Charters is a popular choice.
Kauai is also the only island with a river that you can cruise via boat. Take a cruise on the Wailua River to view the lush fern grotto or rent kayaks to explore the river on your own. Acquire a stand-up paddleboard in Hanalei and set out on the Hanalei River past the taro patches and one-lane bridges.
If you’d rather play on a beach, there’s plenty to see. The beaches on the South Shore, like Poipu and Mahaulepu, have plenty of family-friendly amenities. You might glimpse an endangered Hawaiian monk seal sunning itself on the sand. On the North Shore, the mountain-backed Hanalei Bay is one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, with a picturesque pier that juts into the horseshoe bay.
Sightseeing in the Garden Isles via catamaran cruises and small raft tours
Exploring Kauai by Land
While most of the island’s coastline is connected by road, much of Kauai’s interior is wild and must be explored by foot. The Kalalau Trail carves its way along the green cliffs of the Na Pali Coast to secluded beach campsites. Only experienced and fit hikers should attempt the nearly 18-kilometer trail. Any visitor with good shoes and a moderate level of fitness can hike the first 3.2 kilometers. Those traveling beyond Hanakapiai valley must have a permit.
Running north and south through the western side of the island, Waimea Canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Waimea Canyon State Park has many trails for different skill levels. You can also explore the island’s landscape without a lot of walking. Horseback riding tours and ATV drives are popular. There are also a few zip line operators around the island, like Outfitters Kauai.
Hiking to secluded spots and breathtaking views
Where to Stay, Eat and Drink in Kauai
If you’re here for three or fewer days, stay somewhere central, such as Lihue. If you’re here longer, split your time between the lush North Shore and the sunny South Shore. Both areas have a range of resorts and condos.
Kauai has few restaurants, but options vary immensely. The resorts on the North and South shores have many high-end options, while towns like Kapaa and Hanapepe have more eclectic local offerings. For a special occasion meal with a view, try Kauai Grill on the North Shore, which has views overlooking Hanalei Bay, or Beach House in Poipu, which has become a sunset tradition.
There isn’t much by way of nightlife on Kauai. You can stop by Duke’s or Trees Lounge for a mai tai, but most places are pretty quiet by 9 p.m. The early bedtime can be a blessing; you can be up early the next day for more adventures.
Shops lining a street in Hanalei, home to the popular beach Hanalei Bay